in the early spring kb and i get a bee in our bonnet and can’t wait to start cleaning out the basement. we live in an old house with a fine film of dirt across everything, the kind that you can’t remove except with a sander. the hardwood peels up, some spots are rubbed raw. i frequently dodge nails in the floorboard, pull splinters from the balls of my feet. some of the walls are peeling and some are painted bright colors. the color in our bedroom is a grotesque scrub green that we can’t stand, but we can’t bring ourselves to pour effort into repainting. but this is how and where you live when you’re mid thirties, after your move to the godforsaken east coast and your lover’s near death have obliterated your savings, as though you had more than a couple hundred in the first place. but this is not an essay about my debt. we don’t have that kind of time.
many people have lived in the house and because the most recent owner doesn’t check on it between tenants, people leave things. a set of margarita glasses in the kitchen cupboards, a box of hats in the upstairs bedroom. the basement is the motherload, a veritable room of requirements. before kb and i go shopping for anything, we check the basement. so far it has provided: two office chairs, numerous planters, potting soil, gardening tools, two power sanders, usable building wood, endless buckets of paint, a pantry shelf, multiple kinds of tape, some nice glassware, draino, a painting of a unicorn, and a functioning 1950s gumball machine. these are things we found pretty much without effort. the washer and dryer are in the basement, and we browse the vicinity between loads. sometimes it feels as though things appear and disappear. what you might have seen one day should never be left alone–it simply won’t be there the next. such was the fate of the bucket of glues kb swears existed once, or the usable mop i know i saw.
we decide to clean it in a fit of rage and compassion. one of our cats, dexter, is a malcontent. he cries constantly. he wants dry food, he wants to attack the other cats, he wants to live outdoors, he wants to open the windows, he wants to be held, he wants to be left alone. lately he wants access to the basement. the basement, glorious though it is, is dangerous and filthy for a creature who lives so close to the ground and has a fondness for chewing on plastic. while no one minds his basement sojourns–indeed, he once took out a jumping spider–it’s hard to just let him “be” down there. he could eat god knows what, get cut on something, die tragic and alone while we sit upstairs rolling our eyes at the Voice. so we decide to clean it–primarily to let dexter go downstairs and god willing SHUTTHEFUCKUP, and so that he can go downstairs and live his best disgusting loner basement cat life.
things are by turn exciting and revolting. we find a mineral oil lamp that needs to be restrung but the motor seems to work. we find a functional kitchen aid stand mixer. we find plastic storage bins–either bottoms or tops, never a matched set. we find clothes covered in mold and i learn how many colors mold can be. the air is heavy and toxic. we learn early that sweeping is a mistake. the dust plumes up and covers us. we try to use masks and handkerchiefs across our noses and mouths but it’s damp here, too, and what isn’t breathed absorbs through our skin, into the bones and lungs. for days after this first day i blow black dirt from my nose, and make use of my inhaler.
a couple hours in, i find an old, heavy suitcase. you know the kind: large plastic handle with a metal perimeter where the top and bottom meet. it’s orange, maybe peach. it’s in surprisingly excellent condition, found off the floor and seemingly insulated from the moisture that has seeped into so many other items. i bring it to the folding card table (also found) that we’ve stationed under a lamp for deeper excavation. i pop open the latch: framed photos of a couple on their wedding day. just underneath: a wedding album. jean and kenneth were married in new jersey in the late 40s. kenneth seems to have been former military–i wonder if he served in WWII. beyond their wedding album there are hundreds of photos–jean and kenneth in the garden, at the beach, smiling at one another. with family, with friends, with each other, alone. underneath all the photos are swaths of off white lace and lacey crochet–what i think could be part of her bridal linens. i start to cry–i can’t help it. who left them here? why haven’t they been claimed? in this suitcase is a snapshot of two lives, and it hurts to imagine the rich, complex humans living them lost and forgotten.
i force myself to move on, but kenneth and jean are everywhere: someone started to build out the basement with a beautiful dark cherry wood, and i can’t imagine such rich material being used past their lifetime. we find a huge wooden box used to mail something to the house from france. it’s addressed to Dr. Jean. we find an address book and a series of holiday cards in what seems to be kenneth’s handwriting. the book is bursting with names and addresses–i wonder–do they remember? are they gone too? i find his army tags, his decorations, his dress blues. then, going through a pile of papers, i find a remembrance card for a funeral. it’s jean’s. she died in 1963. i cry more–what a short life–how did she die? and, their marriage, not even 20 years. what happened to kenneth? did he remarry? did he die alone? did he move his wedding album to the basement to be forgotten on purpose? i can’t know and i feel doubled over by the grief. i didn’t even know them–why is this so sad?
the last thing i find is perhaps the worst thing. i see a clear plastic garment bag shimmering, shoved into a far corner. it contains jean’s wedding dress. i know the second i see the white garment inside. it looks slightly different than the photo, but i verify it from the detail on the sleeves and chest. it looks like she was altering it before she died, but didn’t complete it. she’d been using lace identical to the pieces i found earlier. she probably did it herself, on the singer we found in two pieces on opposite sides of the basement. the dress isn’t in a great condition now, but someone wanted it, kept it. and it probably got moved around over and over all these years, maybe without anyone realizing the body it held, or the bodies that held it.
kb tries to console me, comes up with scenarios for how so many intimate, personal items got left behind or ignored. she tries to convince me that we can find the next of kin, and perhaps give these items a home again. it’s hard to be consoled. i tell a friend what i found, and he asks, how long are people supposed to remember and hold on to sentiment? he says that he can’t imagine his name being spoken more than 50 years after his death. the thought chills me. are our lives so meaningless and fleeting? the basement seems to say yes. i think of my grandparents, now dead. i think of my great grandparents, gone before i ever met them. i think of my father, whose mind slowly erases his own life and theirs. i think of the stories and loves and lives passed, relegated to basements and closets and cemeteries by the unrelenting movement of right now. now is always happening, always moving forward. time is never ours to save, never ours to lose. i like to think jean and kenneth made good on the time that they were given. i know my ancestors did. i know my father does. what else is there? i keep speaking their names during my window, building out their histories as far as i can, as far as my now takes me.